During the World Cup we have been looking at how former Palace players have fared whilst on international duty. Here, Yannick Bolasie reflects on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s run to the last four of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations.
Yannick Bolasie’s only major tournament to date was one to remember. Having turned down the opportunity to play for the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 2013 edition –their first appearance in seven years – to focus on Palace’s promotion bid, the winger was determined to make an impression in African football’s showpiece two years later.
“I didn’t feel any pressure but I knew there was pressure from outside because I was the only player in the team playing in the Premier League at that time, and I knew the country would be looking at my performance closely,” he admitted to the Palace matchday programme in 2016. “But I didn’t think about any of that - it was my first tournament and I went out there and played with a smile on my face.”
That approach certainly paid off. The then-Palace man, who played for the Eagles 144 times across four years, kicked things off in style by scoring and being named man of the match against Zambia in DR Congo’s opener, and then played in subsequent draws against Cape Verde and Tunisia to reach the knockout stages.
A quarter-final win over neighbours Congo saw Bolasie’s team reach the semi-finals, but they suffered a 3-1 defeat against the Ivory Coast, setting up a third-place play-off against the hosts Equatorial Guinea.
“We got knocked out of the semi-finals which was difficult to take so the build up to the third-place play-off was a bit flat,” he said. “There’s a different culture in Congo to England; here everyone is on the team bus with their headphones on and playing cards, but over there it’s all about singing and making songs up, but that time we weren’t doing the stuff that we usually do. It was weird because on the line was a chance to finish third.
“We started the game strongly and I should have scored a couple of goals. We played really well and their keeper had to make some good saves to keep it 0-0 and in the end we had to go to penalties – which we won.”
As well as the bronze medal, Bolasie was selected in the official team of the tournament in a star-studded midfield containing Yaya Toure, Andre Ayew, Max Gradel and Gervinho. Despite not claiming top honours in Equatorial Guinea, the squad were afforded a huge welcome home, taking their new hero Bolasie by surprise.
“When we flew back to Congo the reception we received was like nothing I’ve experienced before, it was hard to even get out of the airport and onto the team bus!” he said. “From the airport to the hotel that we were staying in it would normally take us 45 minutes to get there, but that day it took us over two hours.
“For the Congolese people, they’re not used to seeing players in the flesh and I think it was good for them. We were driving through on trucks, the ones where they’re open at the back, and you could feel the vibe coming from the crowd. I filmed some of the moments on my phone and looking back it still makes me go ‘wow’. It felt like we’d won the tournament.”